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Before Social Media, Los Angeles Retailers Gave Denim Brands Their Big Break

The parking lot outside Fred Segal’s original Melrose location was hallowed ground for anyone with Hollywood ambitions in the 2000s. There, paparazzi waited for Paris Hilton to step out with an arm-full of shopping bags, and for Victoria and David Beckham to pull up in their not-so-inconspicuous convertible. Meanwhile on Robertson, Britney Spears shopped at 2:00 A.M. at Kitson, and three then-relatively unknown sisters, the Kardashians, opened a women’s boutique called Dash. And over at Barneys in Beverly Hills, Winona Ryder infamously helped herself to a five-finger discount.

In short, Los Angeles’ retail scene was popping in the 2000s. And premium denim brands reaped the benefits of these retailers with celebrity cachet. As the curators of cool, American Rag, Fred Segal, Kitson, Rob Robinson, Scoop NYC and Barneys—on both coasts—made jeans by brands like 7 For All Mankind, Chip & Pepper, Citizens of Humanity, Earl Jeans and more, the new Hollywood status symbol.

Before that, according to Adriano Goldschmied, the “godfather of denim” and  House of Gold president, jeans were a commodity item in the U.S. “Those stores elevated the image of denim,” he said. “They created a new emoticon in consumers and also they offered a lot of different brands to choose from.”

“At the height of their powers, these stores were the official arbiters of taste,” added Brian Trunzo, head of sales for Informa Men’s. “From underground cool kids to mainstream trendsetters, they crossed the spectrum like no one else.”

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Premium denim brand Chip & Pepper organically grew a celebrity clientele for its vintage rock ‘n’ roll jeans and tops in the 2000s. Celebrities like Britney Spears and Beyonce shopped at the brand’s Melrose store, but its partnership with Barneys did what no single celebrity or PR company could do, co-founder Chip Foster said.

“They would build your brand and support you,” he said. “Barneys was smart because if you sold to Barneys you had to hold off on selling to retailers like Nordstrom, but we were doing millions with them. There was no need to sell to anyone else. You walked onto the third floor of Barneys on Wilshire and it was just a massive Chip & Pepper store.”

In its prime, Trunzo said stores like Barneys had cachet with “twenty-something aspirational shoppers who listened to Kanye West and watched ‘Entourage,’ as well as the well-heeled women who ate at Cipriani and watched ‘Sex and the City.’”

“These stores,” he added, “were incredibly nimble in appealing to the tastemakers of every tribe, really. They had the trust of the emerging brands, and it paid big dividends in the form of hype and major selling events.”

Waning stars

Alas, a confluence of events, like the 2008 Great Recession and the subsequent retail downturn, led many of these megawatt retailers to lose their luster.

Following several lawsuits, Kitson, which sold labels like 3×1 and Genetic, shut its stores in 2015, but was saved from bankruptcy by Spencer Spirit Holdings, owner of the novelty mall store Spencer’s and Halloween costume shops. After nearly two decades of business, Scoop NYC closed its stores in 2016, though Walmart resurrected it last year as its trendy in-house brand. Today, prices for Scoop denim start at $25, a far cry from $200-plus premium heyday. And Ron Robinson, which got its start as a shop-in-shop at Fred Segal, shifted to an online-only business model in 2019.

Then there’s Barneys, which was sold off to fashion licensing company Authentic Brands Group in 2019 for $271.4 million. Following liquidation sales, Barneys stores closed for good in February. However, the new owners plan to reboot Barneys as a shop-in-shop at former rival Saks Fifth Avenue.

In Barneys case, Foster said buyers panicked when more premium denim brands entered the space.

At the peak of the premium denim market around 2004-2006, there were an estimated 2,500 denim companies in the Los Angeles area, according to Foster. Every entrepreneur, celebrity and athlete wanted to have a jean brand, he said. Companies were competing for pattern makers and technical designers, while simultaneously dealing with the constant theft of ideas. “Everyone was jockeying for position,” Foster said. “It was ruthless, but it was fun because millions were being made quickly.”

However, it also meant denim brands were competing for retail space. “The buyers were under pressure to get the next latest brand seen in People magazine into their stores,” Foster said. And as a result, the brand stories they originally created on their sales floor were diluted.

Click bait

There is one other unmistakable difference between retail in 2000 and retail in 2020. The majority of U.S. consumers did not have the internet at the start of the new millennium, and those who did were using dial-up connections to connect to the World Wide Web. There were no social media platforms to plug consumers into fashion from around the world. The only influencers curating edits were buyers and the editors of fashion magazines—an industry that took its own nosedive in the late 2000s.

Before the internet, Trunzo said these hotshot retailers had buying teams with impeccable taste. They had a direct line to all the young creators in every market. “If something interesting was happening in Tokyo, they knew about it, and they were willing to put their full force behind these brands and products—to highlight them in interesting ways, to put them alongside major established luxury and designer labels,” he said.

The mainstreaming of the internet and the development of smartphones put that power into the hands of influencers and consumers. As a result, Trunzo said the internet and social media has flattened culture and curation. “Consumers no longer look to official centralized authorities the way they once did,” he said. “Tumblr and then Instagram gave a platform to curators and allowed up-and-coming creators to showcase their wares to the world. Motivated consumers could find trend and taste at any corner now.”

And with access to heaps of information, consumers’ values have shifted, too, Goldschmied added. “They can select products that are more durable and better quality at the best price,” he said. “Transparency and interest for sustainable products are also things that [were] not even existing at the time.”

Goldschmied, for one, doesn’t care to lament about the good old days of denim retail. “We don’t need any more stores for fashion victims,” he said. “Fashion is much more democratic and consumers [nowadays] give much more attention to the real value of products.”

Fresh perspective

Social media and the internet hasn’t cancelled denim retail all together—it just has to work harder. “Good retail is still very important, but it’s not just a place to buy a jean,” Goldschmied said. “It is more about creating emotions and giving a trend direction to consumers.”

Trunzo agreed: “It’s not just about ‘putting on’ new brands, he said. “Retailers need to think about the entire experience.”

Though it closed its doors in 2017, Trunzo said Colette in Paris created the blueprint for experiential retail. Retailers like Dover Street Market (with five stores around the world), Farfetch-owned Browns in London, Boston-based Bodega and MartinPatrick3 in Chicago, he said, have taken the concept to the next level.

Meanwhile, Galeries Lafayette is wooing Gen Z consumers with its new Champs-Élysées store dedicated to inclusive beauty brands, up-and-coming labels and limited-edition drops. Likewise, 111-year-old Selfridges has turned over a large portion of its London flagship to denim, sneakers and luxury streetwear brands, complete with its own  indoor skate bowl.

And though L.A.’s retail scene has more global and online competition, there is still a place at the table for stalwart retailers like Fred Segal, which is making moves to reclaim its denim powerhouse status as it nears its 60th anniversary in 2021.

Last fall, the store—now located on Sunset Blvd.—hosted a six-week popup for the exclusive launch of Wrangler’s Archival Capsule Collection. This year, it is teaming up with Diesel for a six-month residency that offers items from Diesel’s exclusive Red Tag collections and its core ready-to-wear lines. Stefano Rosso, Diesel CEO of North America, described Fred Segal as “one the most amazing environments which represents the best of what the modern lifestyle looks like and stands for today.”

“It’s an exciting time for retail,” Trunzo said. “Forward-thinking stores with the ability to tell stories and execute interesting concepts will attract the best brands and the most loyal consumers.”